Kurt Verlin
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Unremarkable Abu Dhabi GP Closes Remarkable 2020 F1 Season

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Daniil Kvyat leads Daniel Ricciardo and Pietro Fittipaldi at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, the penultimate race in the 2020 F1 season
Photo: Honda

After the Australian Grand Prix was canceled in March, the 2020 F1 season was, in the words of Liberty Media CEO Chase Carey, “in flux.” It wasn’t clear if there would be a championship at all, and if there was, if it would feature more than just a handful of grands prix at the same handful of European circuits.

But in the end, the 2020 F1 season not only featured 17 races hosted around the world, but was also one of the best seasons of the turbo-hybrid era. Sure, Lewis Hamilton won again and broke a bunch of records, but the midfield battle was closer than ever and the variety of race winners and podium sitters was greater than in any season since 2012.

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2020 Sakhir Grand Prix top 10

The Sakhir Grand Prix, which I didn’t write about last week because I was on vacation, was one of the most astounding F1 races I’ve had the pleasure to watch. The stage had been set for something incredible: Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19 and taking over his driving duties was none other than George Russell — the Williams driver who had, after three years in F1, yet to score a single championship point.

Russell had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show what he could do in a top car, and he didn’t disappoint. He qualified second, behind teammate Valtteri Bottas by only 0.026 seconds, and took the lead at the start. During the first half of the race, he looked to be in a commanding position to win his first grand prix.

When the safety car was called out, everything went wrong. Bottas and Russell both pit for fresh tires, but Mercedes put Bottas’s tires on Russell’s car and then, after about half a minute of confusion, released Bottas with the same tires he had come in with. Russell had to pit again the next lap to put on the right tires and avoid a penalty.

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Despite the time lost, Russell was still poised to catch leading driver Sergio Pérez before the end of the race — but just as he was getting into striking distance, he was advised by his engineer that one of his tires was slowly deflating. Disaster. Russell had to pit once more and after that, there was doubt he would even score points.

Passing five cars in seven laps, he ultimately finished ninth and set the fastest lap of the race to score three points. At Williams, that would have been cause for bliss. At the Sakhir Grand Prix, it was a heartbreak moment for a driver who had done everything right. Still, as a viewer, it was hard to be too upset; after all, Russell’s misfortune enabled Pérez to win his first F1 race and celebrate a 10th career podium.

Verstappen won in Abu Dhabi, the last race of the 2020 F1 season
Max Verstappen celebrates winning the 2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Photo: Honda
2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix top 10

Because he is without a contract for 2021, it was the perfect way for Pérez to mark his penultimate race. But he’ll probably want to forget the finale in Abu Dhabi, where an engine issue forced him to retire just a few laps after the start.

Fortunately for Pérez, his win in Sakhir had earned him enough of a points buffer to keep fourth place in the final championship standings despite retiring in Abu Dhabi. Though, unfortunately for his team, it did cause Racing Point to lose out to McLaren by only seven points, representing a few million dollars in prize money.

Unlike the Sakhir Grand Prix, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was not much to write about except that it was won by Max Verstappen, who now has more victories than Valtteri Bottas during the latter’s tenure at Mercedes — an alarming statistic given the performance disparity of their cars. One can only hope that by 2022, Mercedes will finally give Russell a full-time drive.

Because the 2021 regulations were pushed back to 2022, next year’s season will likely be a repeat of the 2020 F1 season where car performance is concerned, but with an even closer midfield. However, significant driver changes should give us some interesting new battles — more on that later.

2020 Formula 1 final championship standings